Francine Prose adores food, but her family has ushered her out of the kitchenby Francine Prose / July 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
An image from a 1950s magazine advert: “My mother liked proving that a woman could work full time and still be a perfect housewife”
It’s been almost 15 years since I overheard my son’s school friend, visiting for the weekend, ask if he thought they could have scrambled eggs for lunch.
My son said, “Sure, I’ll ask my mom.”
Then the friend asked if they could have scrambled eggs with onions. There was a long, ruminative pause. Finally I heard my son say, “Actually, maybe we’d better wait till my dad gets home for that.”
This must have been the stage at which I was still cooking but drew the line at anything more than two ingredients, not counting salt and pepper. This was, I’d say, three-quarters of the way along a culinary path that led me from being an ambitious cook, poring over a puckered, sauce-stained hardcover of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to a person whose (rare) forays into the kitchen are now as an entry-level sous-chef, shelling peas and slicing the tomatoes and mozzarella.
Along the way, I’ve made eggplant parmesan for 40 people and enough basil pesto to feed the guests at a friend’s wedding. When my sons were little, I could do a few trusty crowd-pleasers: matchstick French fries, berry cobbler. Since I failed to progress through time and change fashion as a cook, some of the things I used to make—a perfect simulacrum of neon-orange Cantonese restaurant sweet-and-sour pork—now have a vintage kitsch, food-history aspect: who would eat that today?
Now, especially when no one’s around, I’ll go for the simplest possible source of nourishment and satisfaction: corn tortillas, covered with cheese that’s melted in the microwave, then rolled into a slightly soggy but nonetheless delicious taco. Anything more complicated seems stressful and fills me with indecision, uncertainty, and annoyance at myself for generally losing track of what I’m doing or not being able to make some small household appliance work.
And yet the truth is that I’m obsessed with food. Good food makes me happy—food that is prepared at home, or in homelike restaurants. My ideal restaurant is a small-town trattoria, let’s say in southern Italy, where the grandma comes around and tells you that peas and asparagus are fresh, and that everything on the menu is a variation on the theme of asparagus and peas. Yet I tire quickly of restaurants, even the homeliest ones, and even more quickly of ordering out aluminium dishes of sag paneer or plastic trays of neatly sliced California rolls.